Wednesday, November 2, 2011

A Note On Trilling's Essay Manners, Morals, And The Novel

So I've now read half the essays in The Liberal Imagination and I'd divide what I've read into two categories: specific essays of literary criticism dealing concretely with specific works; and essays trying to work out some more general ideas. Those categories aren't rigid: some essays belong to both, say the essay on Fitzgerald; and the specifically critical essays are so rich in cultural and intellectual historical reference that they range beyond mere literary analyses, though they are that, including the most exegetical one on the Immortality Ode.

The essay I just finished, Manners, Morals and the Novel, is so far the strongest I've read of the second category. For a while there I followed along every step of Trilling's argument. But then in his discussion of why up to, and as at, that essay's time, 1947, America didn't really have a tradition of the novel of manners, as he defines manners, or a great novel of manners as such, I started to get a sense of tension (and maybe circularity) in what he is arguing.

He doesn't say in that essay that regardless of that tradition lacking, America hasn't produced great novels. He acknowledges that it has, as obviously it had. And in surveying the fiction around him, he grants only Faulkner some place of honour in the novel of manners:

...Of our novelists today perhaps only Faulkner deals with society as the field of tragic reality and he has the disadvantage of being limited to a provincial scene...

And he notes that American life has "thickened" so as to be something different than when, as he paraphrases James Fennimore Cooper, its manners were "...too simple and dull to nourish the novelist."

A problem is that Trilling suggests manners, as he defines them, are a necessary condition of fictional greatness:

...Here then is our generalization: that in proportion as we have committed ourselves to our particular idea of reality we have lost our interest in manners. For the novel this is a definitive condition because it is inescapably true that in the novel manners make men...

He goes on in that paragraph to say "It does not matter in what sense the word manners is taken." He says his generalization is true whether for, say, Proust or Dickens or Homer or Fielding.

So, at least three, maybe four, questions arise.

How does he square that necessary condition with his observation that America hitherto has produced great novels, albeit not novels of manners because there was no such tradition in America because American life was not thick enough;

what exactly does he mean by manners--and does he use the term consistently throughout his essay;

and what does he mean when he says, for example, that Steinbeck's or Dos Passos's or Sinclair Lewis's novels do not rise to being novels or manners, that their fictional representations and conceptions of reality are insufficient?

He starts, after some discussion, codifying that discussion by defining manners as more than a "culture's rules of personal intercourse," as, rather more, "a culture's buzz and hum of implication...the whole evanescent context in which its explicit statements are made." I think a problem is that developed social thickness is not necessary to Trilling's large sense of manners and a problem is that Trilling conflates the social complexity which necessarily arises from intense urban life-- in a crowded country where the competitive pressures are great, forcing intense passions to express themselves fiercely and yet within the limitations set by a strong and complicated tradition of manner...--

with the truism that nearly any social situation and context, whether in the developing West of Cooper, the New England town life of Hawthorne, the river, raft and town of Twain, the Pequod of Melville, the sea, the old man and the big fish of Hemingway (even if only a novella), the Yoknapatawpha of Faulkner, and on and on and on, can provide sufficient evanescent context with which, and within which, genius can yield artistic greatness.

And that's the real reason no sense of the word manners binds Trilling's listed great practitioners; it's not complex urban life with a rich tradition of manners that marks their greatness; it's their greatness itself that marks itself, setting itself in diverse ways in the evanescent context with which and within which it works.

And that's the real reason why Steinbeck and those lesser talented writers listed "don't make the cut." It's not their deficient conception of reality, as Trilling argues; it's not America's deficient conception of reality, as he argues; it's not Faulkner's provincialism limiting his genius, as he argues, a real misjudgment on Trilling’s part in any event. It's their--save for Faulkner-- lack of great talent. (Faulkner had talent enough to be considered, rightly, a world class novelist.)

So this is a problem with Trilling generally when he doesn't confine himself essentially to literary criticism. His immense learning, his real thoughtfulness, his obvious intelligence and his eloquence begin to collapse on themselves the more he tries to systematically work out an idea or a set of them. And in that regard his eloquence is beguiling. He sounds so authoritative and knowing and grand when he makes his large pronouncements that we tend to glide along with them rather uncritically. But, I'd argue, even under the pressure of some common place scrutiny of a middling scrutinizer such as myself, some of that high sounding grandness starts to crumble some.

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